Where Do Book Ideas Come From? The Story Behind The Swamp

Perfect headline/photo from the Express #snowquester

In my novel The Swamp, a drone crashes into the White House, changing the course of history forever. Where did my idea come from? A bad weather forecast.

The Triggering Incident

On this day in 2013, Washington was supposed to get an epic snow storm. There was a run on milk and toilet paper. The federal government shut down. The local TV channels suspended programs and went to wall-to-wall coverage. Jim Cantore from the Weather Channel even flew in to witness the snowy carnage.

And it rained. I watched it all day, waiting for it to turn to snow, but the precipitation remained persistently non-frozen. It was the city that cried snow, to quote the Washington Post Express.

Around 4 PM, I gave up and went to happy hour, walking deserted downtown streets to be the only customer at a bar. The weatherman on TV said that there was a layer of hot air over the city; it was snowing in the suburbs.

Layer of hot air…. If you’re a writer, this is one of those amusing details that you file away.

Collecting Information

Ironically, I had recently started working in communications at the National Weather Service. A few months later, I had the chance to visit the Weather Forecast Office in Sterling, the office that had issued the bum forecast.

I didn’t ask them about that. Instead, I was shown how they used computer models and data displays to customize local forecasts. I was also shown a weather balloon, which carried a radiosonde designed to transmit atmospheric pressure, temperature, humidity and wind speed data.

“The Secret Service visited after we had balloon end up on the White House lawn,” a meteorologist told me. Another interesting detail, filed away.

At the same time, I was annoyed by the ever-increasing level of security theater in DC. Public spaces and parks have been stolen by the Secret Service and other agencies in the name of security. The perimeter around the White House expands ever outward, seizing Lafayette Park to the north and the Ellipse to the south, grand public spaces that are routinely closed off. This is done despite the Secret Service’s failure to prevent fence jumpers and other miscreants.

Then, in 2015, a man crashed a drone into the White House in what was described as a drunken lark. It made a mockery of security theater. How can you keep the President safe in the age of the drone? Another interesting detail.

If you’re a writer, you constantly collect information – even if you don’t realize it, filing away interesting stories and amusing incidents for future use.

Write What You Know

I had a recently finished writing a mystery novel, Murder on U Street. It’s a dark comedy in which I kill off hipsters.

For my next book, I wanted to write a satire with a political edge, like Scoop by Evelyn Waugh.

What could I write about? The image of the drone disappearing into the night stuck with me. It would be a great way to open a book.

Write what you know. What did I know? The National Weather Service had taught me about weather forecasting and government bureaucracy. I knew security theater, for I had seen places I loved locked away by fences. And I had heard enough anti-Washington sentiment to understand that a good chunk of this country wanted this city to disappear.

Putting all of these thoughts together, I had my idea for The Swamp:

A meteorologist, humiliated by a bum forecast, puts a drone into the layer of hot air over DC to measure its strength. It crashes into the White House, triggering a security scare. The nation is outraged. How can we keep the President safe from drones? By moving him, and the rest of government, out of Washington.

Now, I just had to write it.

The Swamp: Early Reviews

Meeting Mandi, one of my readers in Orlando, Florida.

One of the most gratifying things about being an author is hearing that people enjoyed your book.

And readers have enjoyed THE SWAMP!

Here are some early reviews of my funny new novel about Washington, DC, and the times we live in now.

Even better than experiencing good reviews is meeting readers, like Mandi in Florida! Her extended family has been some of my biggest supporters. Her aunt Rachel (the cool aunt) designed the cover of my novel.

Check out THE SWAMP yourself and enjoy this rollicking read!

Winter: A Time of Deep Crankiness

Rosslyn at sunset

I unleashed a volley of obscenities at the two (two!) cars parked in the middle of the bike lane. After a minor fender-bender, these two drivers decided the best course of action was to move their cars into the protected bike lane of 15th, thus forcing people on bikes (me!) into traffic.

I cursed; they cursed back. At the next light, a woman on a bike pulled up next to me. “That wasn’t helpful,” she said.

“But,” I started, thinking of all the different ways the bike lane is blocked daily by cars, construction and utility companies determined to dig up every bit of asphalt in this city. However, I’ll admit when I’m wrong and I was. Yelling at them did not help matters nor did it make me feel better. It just left me with a hangover of rage.

It’s a tough time of year. I dread these days when the sun sinks lower in the sky until it just barely seems to get above the horizon. You go to work under gray skies and leave when it’s black.

A time of deep crankiness, when schedules are packed with commitments while you’re pressed with a tyrannical demand to appear jolly. Humans, however, are cyclical animals and this is the low end of the year, a sputtering conclusion to a particularly bad one.

Thank god I can run. On Monday, after wrestling with “Run? Don’t run?” I plodded toward Georgetown as the sun set. Running along the waterfront it occurred to me that perhaps the way to conquer winter was to embrace the darkness. Cold temps bring a stillness to the city, banishing the fair-weather tourists. I ran alone by the dark Potomac. Light lingered in the west, across the river.

I stopped to capture the moment. Pretty photo but I’m never going to love winter. Move faster, earth, and spin these dark days away until we reach spring.

The Swamp – Get This Funny New DC Novel

The Swamp - coverMy new novel, THE SWAMP, begins with a bad weather forecast. A meteorologist predicts snow for Washington, DC. But snow turns to rain over the city, for it is protected by a layer of hot air.

How much hot air? To determine this, the meteorologist sets a drone aloft over the skies of DC, triggering a comic chain of events leading to the end of the country as we know it. Welcome to THE SWAMP.

DC always seems to be on the rain-snow line and with another questionable forecast in the air, I decided this weekend was the perfect time to launch THE SWAMP. This dark satire of DC is now available in print and Kindle on Amazon.

A five-star review described the book as a “dystopian thriller that will have you wondering..what if? or if only?”

THE SWAMP is set in a mercifully Trump-free era. It’s an alternate history of DC, in which sleazy TV correspondents, mommy bloggers and jaded politicos struggle to control a world spinning away from them. If you like dark comedies filled with complex characters and ironic plot twists, then you’ll love THE SWAMP.

Relive election night in Victory Party

In my short story Victory Party, which won the City Paper Fiction Competition, I portray a Washington shocked by the Trump victory – and one person who’s happy about the result.

Election 2016 was an event that traumatized the American psyche. I wasn’t the only person who processed this horror through fiction. A majority of the submissions to the City Paper contest concerned Trump, as I learned during a reading at Kramerbooks.

I assumed the worst was over. A horrible punch to the gut but then life in Washington would resume along the contours of previous experience. Trump would rise to the occasion and become a normal Republican like Bush.

I was wrong. Realized it during his American Carnage inauguration speech. Everything went downhill from there, a year of outrages culminating in the firing of James Comey. Now, we’ll be lucky to survive 2017 without Trump kicking off war on the Korean peninsula.

During the year, I wrote a novel – The Swamp. My fictional depiction of the Obama era seems quaint. The book presents a scenario I thought outlandish, in which a political groundswell demands that the nation’s capital be moved out of DC. Out of Washington, I called it. But this fictional future reads like a best-case scenario now.

Thinking back on my short story, Victory Party, what would my protagonist make of the past year? My ex-con Randy was happy, the Trump victory representing revenge upon the elite class, through he’s wise enough to know it won’t last. One year later, it hasn’t, and I imagine him trying to stay honorable in very dishonorable times.

We write to make sense of our times, trying to impose narrative on chaos. Washington wrote following the Trump victory. Washington continues to write as the nation unravels.


Letter from Washington: Things Fall Apart

The man who would be king

Every morning, I bike by the White House.

Blocked off from traffic, the 1600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue is peaceful and calm. Just after dawn, I slowly pedal by, just me, a few joggers and the Secret Service. In the warm light of morning, the White House looks serene.

Inside, however, a President rages as a conspiracy is revealed.

A plot against America, carried out by the President’s campaign. If this was a season of House of Cards, it would strain credulity. Democrats and Republicans, while they have their differences, all believe in democracy – right?

No. Trump and his family colluded with Russia to win an election, gleefully aided by a Republican party willing to do anything to win.

At first glance, the scandal seems like a black comedy cooked up by the writers of Arrested Development, the Bluth family writ large, a global scheme to launder money and filled with bit players such as a George Popadapoulos, catfished by Russia into thinking he was meeting Putin’s niece. Funny, right?

But then you remember that this isn’t TV. It’s not HBO. It’s your country and the scandal is an attack on democracy, an act of collusion between a corrupt candidate and a Russian adversary eager to upend the global order.

Our external enemy (Putin) has joined with our internal one (red states) in an alliance to bring down the country that they hate: America.

Over the weekend, I watched Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold. She too was cursed to live in interesting times, the 1970s, and used her talent to document the disorder she saw in brilliantly-written essays that reported on the decline. Combining a literary eye for detail with a pitiless examination of her personality, she captured what life was like when things fall apart.

We tell ourselves stories to live.

Joan Didion

The thing about the 70s is that no one knew how it would turn it out. As a kid, I remember seeing maps on the spread of communism, from Angola to Yugoslavia. The Russians were going to win – just look at the map. During the Carter era, we were stuck with a combination of inflation and stagnation that economists said couldn’t exist: stagflation. Or maybe another Ice Age was coming. Seemed plausible. Anything did back then, because we didn’t have a defining story, a vision of the future.

Like the 1970s, we’re in a hinge moment. The narrative of democracy has collapsed. A new era of tyrants has emerged, promising a revenge saga of blood and iron. To quote Yeats:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

In the evening, I return home past the White House. Tourists gather by the fence to snap photos, like they always have. This symbol of American democracy remains a powerful one, despite its current occupant.

And the strength of our story, the American story, endures, as it waits for a new storyteller, and a new vision of the future, to bring us together once again.

Write crap for National Novel Writing Month

Don't give up, OK?

In your head, it’s perfect, the Great American Novel, a book destined to be a classic. All you have to do is write it down.

But an idea is not a real thing. It’s nothing. Saying you have a great idea for a book is like saying you have a great idea for a jet fighter. It’s a fantasy. Only by taking your story and actually telling it do you create art.

Your book will be imperfect. Shockingly so, which is why most people never get around to creating art. It’s safer to be an imaginary artist than a real one.

But, if you’re an artist, you get your art out the door and into the world. “Real artists ship,” as Steve Jobs said. You become a writer by writing, not by dreaming about it.

National Novel Writing Month in November is an excellent time to start your creative journey. Join a global community of people striving to write a novel. Challenge yourself to pick up the literary habit, find the solace of creating something new and make a real contribution to the world.

The objective during NaNoWriMo is to write a novel – not necessarily a good novel. NaNoWriMo is about quantity, not quality, with a single goal to attain: 50,000 words. That’s 1667 words a day.

The novel can be crap. In fact, it probably will be crap. Expect it to be crap. Giving yourself permission to write crap is enormously liberating.

And you can always fix it. Many great novels have emerged from painful first drafts. Every book gets revised. Hemingway wrote 47 different endings to A Farewell to Arms.

I tend to write and cut. For my short story, Victory Party, which won the City Paper fiction contest, I wrote it over a couple of days but then spent the next month picking away it like a turkey carcass, deleting anything that sounded like exposition until only the bones remained. You can fix stories but first you have to write them.

My first novel, Murder in Ocean Hall, began as a joke. After three years at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, I was going to take some time off to write a big, serious novel about 9/11. No pressure.

But, at my going away party, I joked that I was going to write a book called Murder in Ocean Hall. I had learned a lot about the big egos of ocean explorers while at NOAA, as well as interesting background behind the construction of the Ocean Hall exhibit at the Smithsonian. I could pair these interesting stories with my street-level knowledge of DC beyond the monuments to create a murder-mystery.

Write what you know.

Plus, writing a mystery was a way of taking pressure off my own artistic ambitions. I wasn’t writing serious literature. Instead, I was writing genre fiction. It didn’t have to be the Great American Novel; readable would suffice.

I don’t know why people say writing is painful. “Just open a vein and bleed,” according to Hemingway.

But, for me, writing is a joy. Starting during NaNoWriMo, but continuing long after, I went to a coffee shop and made stuff up, piling up words and solving problems as I built my book, learning how to write a novel over endless cups of java.

Is Murder in Ocean Hall any good? Does it matter? I had fun writing it and I enjoy seeing it on my shelf.

Which is why you should NaNoWriMo. You’ll do what few people have – actually write a book rather than just talking about it. But also because writing is a fun and creative activity with its own rewards. And you can do it while hanging out in coffee shops. That’s why I write.

Coming Soon – THE SWAMP

When an errant drone crashes into the White House, it triggers a chain of events that leads to the end of the country as we know it.

Welcome to THE SWAMP, my new novel mocks the city that America has come to hate.

THE SWAMP begins on Christmas Eve, when a drone crash causes a security scare at the White House. Fox News screams, “How can we keep the President safe?” A crackpot idea from a cynical TV correspondent – let’s move the nation’s capital to an underground bunker – becomes an uncontrollable political movement. Can the President and the rest of official Washington contain this red state rebellion or will it swamp them all?

From mommy bloggers to scheming bureaucrats, THE SWAMP is a love letter to this city – and a wish for its destruction – packaged together in a black comedy reminiscent of Christopher Buckley and Evelyn Waugh.

Read the first chapter to get a taste of THE SWAMP.

Victory Party: The Story of a Story

Victory Party in City Paper
Victory Party in the City Paper

My short story, Victory Party, won First Place in the City Paper Fiction Issue. Since then, a number of friends have asked me about the story. Where did the idea for Victory Party come from? How did I write it? Why did I write it?

Here are answers to Frequently Asked Questions. It’s the story of a story – how Victory Party got made.


The deadline for the City Paper contest was not long after the Presidential Election. It was a natural subject. According to Mary Kay Zverloff (author of Man Alive!), who judged the competition, the vast majority of short story submissions dealt in some way with the election.

I was surprised, like most people, by the depth of Trump’s support. This election was Hillary’s to win – all the polls agreed. But, clearly, there was a secret class of Trump supporter, people in the shadows, who kept their opinions to themselves.

Who were they? What motivated them? Exit the DC bubble and it’s not hard to find folks suffering from hard times. As I wrote in Victory Party, these were people who:

voted for the man, out of desperation, a mad hope that someone could change their cursed little town and their cursed little lives.

But what would it be like to be a Trump supporter in Washington, where 96% of people voted for Clinton?

Conducting research with The Emperor's Clothes at McClellan's Retreat
Conducting research with The Emperor’s Clothes at McClellan’s Retreat


There are a lot of bars in my fiction. Write what you know! It’s the default setting for a Joe Flood story. I find bars to be interesting places that bring all manner of people together. Having talked to a few bartenders, I’m also fascinated by the business of bars, how a couple dollars worth of booze gets magically transformed into an $18 drink.

DC has seen a rise in this “cocktail culture” over the past few years, as the loveable dives of my youth give away to exclusive speakeasies. I decided a ridiculously hipster bar would make a good locale for my story, the better to illustrate the contrast between elite DC and the real world.

I had two sources of inspiration for my setting: Bar Charley and McClellan’s Retreat. I wandered into Bar Charley on election night. It’s a cozy, brick-lined basement much like my bar in Victory Party. And, like in my story, there was a palpable sense of tension there on election night, an expectation of victory tinged by a fear of the unfathomable.

My other inspiration, McClellan’s Retreat, I just love. Quiet, dark and with no TVs, this Dupont Circle craft cocktail bar is a great place to meet friends for an intimate chat.


I mock the people of DC in books like Murder on U Street. I think newcomers to the city are naive and clueless. A shiny veneer has been placed over a Washington that still houses the poor and disaffected, a city where anything not locked down gets stolen.

In Victory Party, my bar patrons are sloppy and careless, blithely handing over their credit cards to questionable individuals and willing to get in any car that looks like an Uber.

It’s also a city of winners and losers, in which incumbents capture whole economies and take the benefits for themselves. Homeowners vs Renters. Baby Boomers vs Gen X. Feds vs Contractors.

I illustrated this dichtomy with two characters: Randy and Michael. Randy is an ex-con with $27 in the bank. Michael owns a bar which serves watered-down drinks – and no one notices. Their view of America is shaped by the opportunities available to them. Crime tempts Randy while Michael is effortlessly rich.


Short story submissions to the City Paper contest had to be less than 1000 words. That’s short. This blog post is longer than that.

The word limit forced me to focus on the most essential elements of my story. All I wanted to show was the moment that Trump won, the shock in DC, and one person who was happy about it. Victory Party sketches out its characters and themes and then delivers us to that epiphany.

Writing & Editing

When I write, I like caffeine and background noise, preferring to work in coffee shops. I wrote the first draft of my story the week before Thanksgiving. The first draft was 1300 words. It was called “Her” and was largely about the reaction of Hillary’s supporters to the loss.

After writing the first draft, I let the story sit for a day and then began cutting, to get the tale below 1000 words. Inspired by the excellent new Hemingway bio, Ernest Hemingway: A New Life, I chopped anything resembling exposition, i.e., explaining the characters rather than showing them do stuff. Show, not tell. 

I focused on Randy and his outsider’s view of the speakeasy, letting out just enough exposition for the reader to understand why he would resent a bar full of wealthy, naive Democrats. “Joe Flood masterfully doles out information,” Mary Kay Zverloff said in her introduction to my story, a comment which made me happier than anything else. She even used Victory Party in her writing class as an example of how to do exposition.

After getting my story below 1000 words, I picked at it for days, like a turkey carcass, deleting and rewriting bits and pieces of it.

The ending was a struggle. How much happiness would Randy reveal? I rewrote the last paragraph several times. In the end, I opted for my main character having a quiet moment of victory, one that he knows won’t last.

I also changed the title, from Her to the ironic Victory Party.

What’s Next

To celebrate the Fiction Issue, the City Paper had a party at Kramerbooks, where I read my story before a packed audience. I’ve been going to Kramers for decades – this was a thrill.

If you liked Victory Party, you’ll love my novel Murder on U Street, a mystery set in the real city beyond the monuments. Read this book if you want a wry look at the DC art scene.

I also have another novel in the works – Drone City, a satire in which a drone crashes into the White House, leading to the end of the country as we know it. It’s a comedy. I’m editing the manuscript now and am looking for agent. Look for it later this year 🙂

Victory Party Wins City Paper Fiction Contest

My short story, Victory Party, won First Place in the City Paper’s Fiction Issue.

The annual Fiction Issue sought stellar, unpublished short fiction from local writers. Submissions were judged (anonymously) by Mary Kay Zuravleff, whose latest novel Man Alive! was a 2013 Washington Post Notable Book. Stories had to be less than 1000 words long. 

Set in a U Street speakeasy on election night, Victory Party is about the moment that the liberal bubble pops.

The City Paper said:

Good fiction vividly and accurately describes the world we know; great fiction upends that world. And so this story not only exposes the privileged ignorance so many had about the election but also introduces believable supporters for the opposition.

I’m a writer and photographer who has lived in DC for more than twenty years. My fiction is primarily about Washington “beyond the monuments” – the real city and its neighborhoods and people. I think my fiction has a verisimilitude that you won’t find in more commercial works that treat Washington merely as a backdrop. Instead, I write about the city that I wander and photograph on a daily basis.

If you enjoyed Victory Party, then check out my novel Murder on U Street, a mystery set in the city’s art world. It contains the same jaded look at a gentrified city wildly out of touch with the rest of the country.

And come see me read Victory Party at Kramerbooks on Sunday, January 8 at 6:30 PM! It will be a celebration of the City Paper’s Fiction Issue!